Strauss-Kahn ‘Perp Walk,’ Naming Victim Divide France, U.S.

Strauss-Kahn ‘Perp Walk,’ Naming Victim Divide France, U.S.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, being escorted by police in New York. Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

The New York “perp walk” of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid, underscores the differences in U.S. and French norms that are causing misunderstandings between the two countries.

Images of a haggard Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs being led away by police officers created an uproar in France. Meanwhile, the name of the alleged victim was published in French newspapers, something the mainstream U.S. press has refrained from doing to preserve her privacy.

“There are certain cultural mores which plainly differ between France and the U.S.,” said Floyd Abrams, a partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP in New York. In the U.S., “after someone is arrested, he is treated as a public person so there is not the view of it being a violation of privacy.”

Strauss-Kahn, 62, until this week the head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading French presidential contender, was granted bail yesterday after being held at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex following his arraignment May 16 on charges he attempted to rape a hotel maid in Manhattan. He has denied the charges.

French television stations, which initially ran footage of the handcuffed, unshaven Strauss-Kahn being led to his arraignment -- popularly known to New Yorkers as the perp walk- - were asked by the Conseil Superieur de l’Audiovisuel, the broadcast authority, to exercise “the greatest restraint” in showing the images.

Former Culture Minister Jack Lang called the coverage a “lynching.” Former Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou called it “absolutely shocking.” Guigou was behind a 2000 law that bars French media from showing suspects in handcuffs, on grounds that it undermines their presumption of innocence.

American Way

That’s not how it’s seen in America.

“The perp walk is a pretty much honored part of the legal process,” said Robert Balin, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in New York. “In the U.S., it is serving the public interest for the public to be seeing the beginning of the judicial process and serves as a deterrent effect.”

For the U.S., the public’s right to know about an arrest is paramount, while in France the privacy -- even of a criminal suspect -- takes precedence.

“For the moment, the French media has been very restrained” in avoiding saying or writing anything to imply guilt, said Dominique de Leusse de Syon, a member of Strauss-Kahn’s legal team. “The problem is the images, whether they convey Mr. Strauss-Kahn as guilty.”

Naming the Victim

Strauss-Kahn’s indictment, made public yesterday, has seven counts including criminal sex act; attempted rape; sexual abuse; unlawful imprisonment; and forcible touching. He is scheduled to be arraigned in New York on June 6. Defense lawyers said Strauss-Kahn will plead not guilty.

France’s ban on showing perp walks might not survive a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights, said Christophe Bigot, a French media lawyer.

“The law is completely against freedom of the press,” he said. While there have been convictions in France under the law, no one so far has taken a challenge to Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, France.

Meanwhile, some French media have named Strauss-Kahn’s accuser. U.S. media have only gone as far as identifying her as a 32-year-old immigrant from Guinea who goes by Ophelia, which is not her real name.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the press can’t be barred from printing the name of rape victims, although states have shield laws protecting them.

Protecting Victims

Hiding their name has a long history in American journalism, said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York.

“Sexual abuse victims will be far more reluctant to come forward and make the claim if they know their identity will be made known to the community at large,” she said. “In an effort to protect the victims, and to encourage their coming forward and reporting criminal sexual assaults, the authorities and the press have not identified them, for the most part.”

Le Figaro, France’s leading morning newspaper, named the alleged victim only after other media had done the same, said Philippe Gelie, editor-in-chief and former Washington bureau chief.

“It’s something that we did struggle with, and it’s something we don’t normally do, but we figured it wouldn’t harm her to have her name in a French newspaper,” he said. “Our paper is not that well distributed in New York.”

Public Interest

Afternoon newspaper Le Monde and news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur didn’t return calls seeking comment on why they chose to publish her full name. Newspaper Liberation said in yesterday’s issue that it wouldn’t divulge her name.

“Some in the press have contended that it is unfair to the accused to identify him or her, but not to allow public exposure of the accuser,” Baron said.

In a case like this where Balin says “the public interest is exceedingly strong,” he and Abrams agree it is only a matter of time before her name and photo appear in major U.S. press outlets.

“Surely we’ll be seeing a picture of her soon,” said Abrams.

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